There are still some worrying trends relating to the imposition of the death penalty in countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, a recently released Amnesty International report reveals. Tania Broughton takes a look at some of the issues.
Amnesty International’s 2021 probe notes that the overall number of recorded executions in Sub-Saharan Africa more than doubled from 2020 – from 16 to 33 – as a result of rising numbers in Somalia and South Sudan. While some countries have stayed executions, there are still thousands of people behind bars “under sentence of death”.
Three countries recorded executions during 2021. In Somalia there were at least 21, South Sudan recorded nine, and Botswana three, but the report notes that information, especially from Somalia and South Sudan is difficult to obtain so “actual figures may be higher”.
Judges also continued to hand down death sentences during 2021. Some examples are the Democratic Republic of Congo where 81 people were sentenced to death, Kenya where there were 14 new death sentences and in Nigeria more than 56. The overall number of recorded death sentences in 2021 was 373 which is “also considerably higher than in 2020 where it stood at 305,” the report notes.
At least 5 800 people in the region are still in prison under sentence of death, with half of them in Nigeria.
However, positive steps have been taken towards the abolition of the death penalty in several countries, including Sierra Leone, Central African Republic and Ghana. There had also been no executions in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 2003. At the end of last year, DRC’s president signed a decree commuting all death sentences in force at the time, and for which appeals had been rejected, to life imprisonment.
In July last year, the Supreme Court in Kenya provided clarity on an earlier court ruling regarding the death sentence, re-affirming that it must be restricted to the “rarest of rare cases involving intentional and aggravated acts of killing”. The court also ruled that all those sentenced to death for murder as a mandatory punishment were entitled to a re-sentence hearing.
There were no recorded executions in Nigeria in 2021 – this in spite of Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, urging state governors to sign death warrants “to tackle overcrowding in the prisons”.
“The number of persons held under death sentences, (in Nigeria) at least 3 306, is by far the highest recorded in sub-Saharan Africa, and one of the highest recorded worldwide,” the report said.
Three Nigerian states had also adopted new laws imposing the death penalty for various crimes including rape where the victim was infected with HIV, “carnal knowledge of a minor”, and aiding and abetting kidnapping and cattle rustling.
In Somalia, 21 people were executed in June 2021 by firing squad, apparently after being convicted of acts of terrorism, including killings. In South Sudan, the number of recorded executions rose sharply from two in 2020 to nine last year, but “NGO’s were continuing with efforts to support people sentenced to death in unfair trials”, the report said.
While there were no executions in Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia in 2021, death sentences continued to be handed down. In Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa ordered the commutation to life imprisonment of all prisoners who had been on death row for at least eight years.
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